Somewhere in the distant future, mathematician and protagonist D-503 begins a diary by transcribing “word for word” a newspaper article announcing the launch of the spaceship INTEGRAL (3). The ship will travel to new planets in order to grow the reach of OneState, the tyrannical regime that rules over D-503’s life. The government has asked its citizens to produce writing praising OneState so the INTEGRAL can spread this propaganda to other worlds. Zamyatin’s We consists of the pages of D-503’s journal, in which he attempts to document and celebrate life under OneState.
In OneState people live according to exacting daily schedules; each person in the entire city awakes at the same time, leaves for work at the same time, and eats at the same time. Every human act is regimented, even sex. Citizens must register and receive tickets in order to have sex during scheduled personal time. This is the only instance in which people may lower their blinds. Every building in OneState is made entirely of glass and citizens are required to keep the walls uncovered, to facilitate state surveillance. Marriage and families are things of the past: adults live in personal glass apartments and the government raises all children. OneState claims that happiness is incompatible with freedom and thus, that its restrictions are for the good of all citizens.
D-503, who is assigned as an engineer on the INTEGRAL, happily works, admiring the beauty of technology and machines. Later, he joins O-90, a companion, in the mandated, daily walk around the city. He swells with pride at the clean-cut efficiency of the buildings and streets. A woman’s laughter interrupts his thinking. The woman, I-330 vexes D-503; he finds something mysterious and disturbing about her. Her sharp wit and features contrast with O’s cheerfully plump persona. I-330 tells him to meet her at an auditorium the following day. When D-503 expresses doubt that he will be assigned to that particular auditorium, she assures him he will with great confidence. He notices an S-shaped man, who looks strangely familiar accompanying I-330. After the scheduled walk ends, D heads back to his apartment, worried.
In another entry, D-503 worries that the readers of distant planets will be too savage to understand the world he is attempting to describe. He details the intricacies of The Table, OneState’s mandated schedule for all citizens. He continues, explaining the “system of scientific ethics” enforced by the government (14). The system he enumerates is utilitarian, placing the needs of the collective far above the needs of the individual. He disparages humans of the past, writing of their anarchic and animalistic tendencies. In writing of the system of Guardians who impose order in OneState, it occurs to D-503 that the S-shaped man he recognized earlier was a Guardian he had seen leaving the Bureau.
Unnervingly, D-503 is in fact assigned to the auditorium where I-330 asked to meet him. He attends the assigned lecture on a new machine that produces music. The mechanical “photolecturer” begins by disparaging the disordered music of previous eras (17). During the lecture D begins to let his imagination wander and is disturbed he cannot pay better attention. Suddenly, I-330 walks onto the stage to demonstrate a piece of old music on a grand piano. Instead of finding it ridiculous, D-503 is inspired and entranced by her playing. After a few moments he regains his composure and begins celebrating the regularity of OneState’s contemporary music. D returns home, where he has punctual sex with O. Afterwards O tears up, seemingly about her desire for a child.
D-503 explains OneState’s attempt to dominate both hunger and love. The first was solved by a devastating 200-year war that killed 99.8 percent of the population. The second was achieved by decreeing that “Any Number has the right of access to any other Number as sexual product," and by systematizing and regulating sex (22). D cannot forget the mysterious “X” quality of I-330 and writes that he has no such quality in him (23). Despite his assertion, he writes about his hairy hands and their maddeningly savage and mysterious nature.
Later, D-503 receives a call from I-330 during his scheduled personal time asking him to accompany her to the Ancient House, an old building that holds relics from the 20th century. Agreeing, D joins I in an “aero” that flies them across the city. Once inside I-330 admits her irrational love for the elderly attendant of the museum. D-503 expresses his distaste for the opaque walls and multi-colored, complex furnishings of older apartments. I-330 mockingly agrees with him, but is seemingly enchanted. She marvels at the power artists used to hold and tries on an ancient, yellow dress. D senses a mysterious fire burning inside her and becomes frustrated when he realizes that humans, like old apartments, are opaque; he cannot read her thoughts. As his allotted personal time is coming to an end, D moves to leave. I-330 asks him to stay in violation of OneState rules, but he refuses. Afterwards, he hears her on the phone arranging to meet someone else at the museum. When asked, D-503 lies to the old woman and the front desk, saying I-330 will now be alone.
D-503 awakes from a dream, something he finds disturbing, as dreams are considered an illness in OneState. He is disturbed that he has yet to report I-330 to the Bureau of Guardians. At work, he sees the S-shaped man, Guardian S-4711, and he attempts to report the incident. Yet, D-503 is unable to tell him. D is further concerned when he reads in the government newspaper that a group of rebels is attempting to overthrow the state. He decides he will turn in I-330 when his shift ends. After work, he runs into O-90 in the street, and is infuriated when she expresses the desire to spend time with him. Hurt, O inquires if he feels ill and D admits with relief that he does. Instead of heading to the Bureau of Guardians, he leaves for the Medical Bureau. That evening he and O work on some “problems from an old book”, intended to calm one down (38).
Another entry begins with a memory from D-503’s childhood, in which he has a nervous breakdown when presented with the irrational concept of √-1. He realizes he has acted irrationally by avoiding reporting I-330. In the street D meets with his friend, the poet R-13 and O-90. R teases him about his worship or rationality, vexing D. After some conversation, the three go to R-13’s apartment, where D-503 disapproving notes the skewed furniture layout. Together they reminisce about their days as children in a government school. R reveals that a poet was executed that morning for proclaiming himself above the law. Disturbed, D notes that R shares the same X-factor found in I-330. He leaves, so R and O may keep their appointment for sex.
In OneState individuals are reduced to machines, completely stripped of individuality and freedom. D-503 even describes a rebel as a “bolt that has gotten bent” (15). People are nothing more than replaceable parts in the great state machine. D expresses the values of his society when he writes about the beauty of industrial machines at work and the irritation of an askew armchair. The OneState promotes above all order and standardization. Every aspect of life is regulated, from sex to furniture choice to education, to produce a well-oiled machine. As a voice for OneState society, D-503 is an unreliable narrator, defending the indefensible for the benefit of the system.
OneState justifies its system of oppression by drawing strong dichotomies between freedom and happiness, individuality and equality, and reason and imagination. According to the state, freedom brings fear and uncertainty; in order to be happy, people must be tightly controlled. Allegedly a great source of unhappiness is inequality; thus all citizens must be made equal. Any display of individuality threatens equality and, therefore, happiness. All the violence of the state apparatus is used in order to secure happiness for its citizens. In order to tightly control the population, citizens must not act in an unexpected or irrational matter. Accordingly, the state deifies its interpretation of rationality or reason. Anything perceived to be beyond reason, like dreams, feelings or imagination is suspect and threatening. D-503 reacts with horror when he awakes and discovers he has been dreaming. In each of these dialectics, there is no room for middle ground or compromise; one is either for happiness, equality and rationality or freedom, individuality and imagination.
The act of producing art plays a large role in Zamyatin’s We. D-503 explains that starting a journal feels as if he were a woman sensing “a new little person” move inside her (4). Like procreation, writing is a creative act; moreover, as in procreation, the work takes on a life of its own. Though D intends his diary to glorify the collective nature of OneState, it quickly becomes a personal record of doubts and discrepancies. Writing will awaken D-503 to his own rebellious thoughts. In We art not only encourages self-reflection, it inspires others. At the music lecture, the force of I-330’s music strikes D. For a brief moment he understands the appeal of the ancient, savage culture he loves to disparage. R-13, as a poet, also contains the rebellious strain that makes I-330 so intriguing. The creation of art requires or encourages a certain level of individuality in its creators, making it potentially dangerous to the government.
The X-factor that D-503 worries over so consistently symbolizes irrationality. In a mathematical equation, X represents a variable. I-330 embodies this side of human nature, which refuses to submit to the rationality so brutally enforced by OneState. She breaks rules under threat of punishment and death, simply to satiate her curiosity and desires. D-503 reveals his fear of irrationality when he repeatedly insists, “there’s no X in [him]” (23). He also admits that the irrational I-330, “almost scares [him]” (26). He further writes that as a child, when presented with the irrational, mathematic concept of √-1, he screamed and cried in panic (39). D-503 was terrified that the irrational number would “grow in [him] like some alien thing” (39). To this day, he clings to rationality as a stable, comforting worldview, supporting the OneState.
Despite D-503’s denials, there is X inside him, as symbolized in his hands. Though he claims to be thoroughly modern and rid of the savage irrationality of the past, D-503 has distinctly primitive, even simian, hands. This proves embarrassing and a source of constant worry for D. His writing and curiosity further indicate that he contains some spark of the irrational. He hesitates to report I-330, though it is in his self-interest. He refers to this part of himself as a “new unknown me” (41). D-503 is thoroughly alienated from the creative, irrational facet of his identity. Yet like all humans he has a dual nature: a rational aspect, and an irrational one. OneState has separated and kept him from his wild side, just as they have separated and kept him from the actual wilderness beyond the great glass wall.